A tearful Journey Brown buried his head into the shoulder of his position coach after his first touchdown Saturday. And, after his third and final score, he looked up to the sky and blew a kiss.
This performance, he told the Big Ten Network, was for his teenage cousin, Paige Odon Fabela, who died unexpectedly Sunday at the age of 17.
“I knew I was playing for him today,” Brown said, clearing his throat after the 27-6 win over Rutgers. “I knew I was playing for him today.”
The Pennsylvania native didn’t want to discuss how his family member died. But after rushing for a career-high three touchdowns and 103 yards — his third 100-yard performance in four games — he did want to make a few things clear.
He never felt alone in Happy Valley, when Paige died last weekend. And he is grateful for two families — the one by blood, back in Meadville, and the one by sweat in Happy Valley. Whenever mentioning Paige, he was quick to mention he also played hard Saturday for the seniors.
But his teammates and coaches didn’t take much offense to whether Paige was in the front of his mind or the back. They knew Saturday wasn’t easy.
“In my 24 years, I don’t think I’ve been around a kid who has overcome more adversity in his life than him,” coach James Franklin said. “He had some more this past week. He’s a special, special kid.”
Brown, known for his infectious smile and optimistic nature, rejoined the program Tuesday. There was never any doubt he would start against Rutgers, even if family comes first. Nobody would have blamed him if he took some personal time, but Brown preferred to press on.
He felt needed to be there. His mother, father, uncle, aunt, close friends and at least a half-dozen other family members cheered him on from the stands. And his other family, the football team, supported him on and off the field.
Staying and playing Saturday just felt right.
“I just always try to channel it into football because that’s my escape,” Brown said, referring to his emotions. “It’s my getaway. It’s what I love to do. So I just take how I love those people and I love my family — I love this family — and I just channel it into what I want to do.”
The Scarlet Knights never stood a chance. Brown averaged 6.4 yards per carry, offering the Nittany Lions offense a boost whenever his number was called.
On his first-quarter touchdown, he carried four times during a nine-play drive and he finished with 28 yards and a score. Second TD? Third quarter, when he rushed twice for 25 yards on a three-play drive. And his final score came in the fourth quarter, when he rushed five times on an eight-play drive for 37 yards.
“To see him come out and run the ball like that, I couldn’t be more happy for the guy,” safety Garrett Taylor said. “He’s had a great season, and he’s been through a lot.”
Brown walked off the field Saturday with purpose. Fans lined the tunnel to the locker room, a few screaming his name and others just yelling to no one in particular. Brown walked over to a group of young children, exchanged high-fives and then gave a giant hug to an adult wearing a Penn State jacket.
A smile wasn’t plastered to his face in the interview room Saturday afternoon, but the outspoken Brown didn’t mind sharing why. And he didn’t mind explaining just why it was important for him to play Saturday.
“It just gives me another ‘why.’ Why do I love this game? Why do I want to do what I want to do? Why do I want to get up every morning, roll out of bed?” he asked. “Because those people, they would have done it for me.
“So whenever I get out of bed, I think about the people who are still here, and I think about what I got to do for my family up here at Penn State and then my family back home. That’s why I get up every morning.”